The Warriors will be without Shaun Johnson for their blockbuster NRL finals match against Penrith, with star halfback ruled out with injury.
The Warriors took to Instagram to announce the news, saying: “SJ has pulled up at training with a calf injury and is unavailable for Saturday. He will be available for selection for our next match.”
Saturday’s game is the first playoff appearance for the club in five seasons and the most significant occasion since the 2011 grand final, with the winner progressing directly to the preliminary final in a fortnight.
Johnson, who has enjoyed a remarkable campaign and is unquestionably the team’s most important player, was earlier today believed to be a 50-50 proposition for the match.
Sources told the Herald that the 32-year-old has taken a limited role in training this week, due to a lower-leg injury. It’s not believed to be related to the thigh strain that has restricted his goal-kicking duties over the past month, with centre Adam Pompey taking over off the tee since the round-24 game against the Wests Tigers in Hamilton.
Johnson took the charter flight to Sydney on Thursday afternoon with the team and was given every opportunity to prove his fitness, ahead of the game.
His potential absence is a hammer blow, off the back of Luke Metcalf’s recent hamstring injury.
Youngster Ronald Volkman is the most likely replacement for Johnson. The 21-year-old has plenty of potential and undoubted talent but his appearance in last Saturday’s game against the Dolphins was just his third NRL game of the season and fifth of his career.
In that scenario, the Warriors would be forced to lean heavily on the experience of five eighth Te Maire Martin, who has previously played first grade for Penrith, North Queensland and Brisbane and appeared in the 2017 grand final. But Martin has only recently returned from injury himself, after being out with a broken leg since early April.
The other option would see Dylan Walker wearing the No 6 jersey, as he did for four games earlier in the year, with Martin shifting to a halfback role. Walker would offer experience and defensive solidity but the Warriors’ general play kicking options would be limited.
Johnson has had arguably the best season of his long career and is a strong contender for the Dally M Medal.
Before he was rested for last week’s game – among seven other front liners – Johnson had been ever present in 2023.
He has an NRL high 27 try assists, along with 24 line break assists and 10 line breaks. He has also chipped in with eight tries – his highest personal tally since 2016.
But it is his game management and organisation that has stood out. He is the heart beat of the Warriors’ offence but also the cool head, reeling off more kicks (383) and kicking metres (11,866) than anyone else in the competition.
Johnson has also been a solid defensive contributor, after a particular focus on that area in pre-season. He is averaging almost 19 tackles a game.
His output was recognised on Monday night, as he was awarded the Simon Mannering medal for Warriors’ player of the season.
He was also judged player’s player – voted by his peers – and won the people’s choice award.
Given his form this season, missing this match would be a cruel blow
Johnson has featured in the NRL finals on only three previous occasions.
He was a big part of the Warriors’ surprise run to the grand final in 2011 in his rookie season, then a key element of their long awaited return to the top eight in 2018.
After leaving the Auckland club, he guided Cronulla to the playoffs the following year.
But the stars were aligned this season, as he has never been part of such a complete team heading into September.
Club representatives were unable to be contacted for comment.
Michael Burgess has been a sports journalist since 2005, winning several national awards and covering Olympics, Fifa World Cups and America’s Cup campaigns. He has reported on the Warriors and the NRL for more than a decade.